E3 '07: Show floor draws mixed reactions

GameSpot tours Barker Hangar and finds it sparser, smaller, hotter, and less crowded; exhibitors sound off on venue, organization.

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SANTA MONICA, Calif.--"This is ****ing insane." That's how a first-time visitor to the Electronic Entertainment Expo summed up last year's E3, but many veterans of the event felt the same way. From May 10-12, 2006, over 60,000 people crammed into the Los Angeles Convention Center, which was temporarily transformed into a deafening, blinding maze of blaring music, whooping sound effects, dazzling neon, and giant screens showing endless loops of gameplay. One exhibitor, NCsoft, was even fined $5,000 when its ear-splitting stage show began to drown out those of its neighbors. When the closing bugle sounded on the last day, many wondered to themselves, "How can E3 possibly get any bigger?"

Well, it couldn't. Two and a half months after E3 2006 ended, its organizing body, the Electronic Software Association, announced changes for the 2007 event. Rechristened the E3 Media and Business Summit, the show would be a much smaller event. Instead of masses of tangentially industry-related attendees stuffing themselves inside multimillion dollar displays at the LACC, the new E3 would only have around 5,000 game developers, publisher staffers, analysts, and media members hopping between a variety of locations in Santa Monica.

To many, the logistics of E3 2007 sounded overly complex. However, after the event unofficially kicked off on Tuesday night, much of it proved relatively simple. Microsoft and Nintendo's press briefings were within a block of one another, and almost all of the hotel suites booked by publishers for private games showings were within a half-mile radius.

Other than Sony's Culver City press event, which required hundreds of reporters to make a mad dash across Los Angeles from Nintendo's event, there was only one sticking point--the Fairmont Miramar. Since the ESA held its back-to-back-to-back third-party press conferences in the Starlight Room, every person attending them was forced to leave at its conclusion. This forced attendees of consecutive events to pack up their bags--or, in many cases, all their video equipment--walk about 15 feet, wait for the room to be "reset," and then reenter the same space. The incessant shuffling caused a cascade of delays at the Fairmont and no end of grumbling from those who were repeatedly displaced.

Less clear-cut was the reaction to the main E3 show floor. Its location at the Barker Hangar was relatively close, but still required attendees to take a shuttle bus or drive several miles. Once there, the venue itself suffered from the fact it is, indeed, a hangar. With few clouds in the sky, the sun's rays turned the simple tin structure into a giant hotbox, a situation that was unevenly remedied by a haphazard air-conditioning setup. Some booths, like Square Enix's, were pleasantly cool, while gamers at other displays were sweating in the oppressive atmosphere.

In fact, even the term "booth" was a misnomer, since none had any walls. Each publisher's area was an open array of identical tables, with any sort of signage kept to a Zen-like minimum. The names of games were only allowed on small placards placed under game station monitors, which were themselves all restricted to a few uniform sizes. And while the noise level in the hangar was loud, there were none of the ear-splitting media presentations in years past. As Midway president David Zucker told GameSpot, the new format is designed to "let the games speak for themselves."

Problem was, there simply weren't that many games. Barker Hangar is between one-third and one-half the area of one of the LACC's halls, and the booths were no larger than 20 feet by 20 feet (and even those were limited to a handful of big exhibitors like Sony and Nintendo). Although the ESA used the strategic placement of lounges and shifting overhead lighting to make the space seem livelier, the show floor was noticeably empty. The low attendance was good for editors who needed to play games for previews, but most of the big games were shown behind closed doors at hotels near the Santa Monica Pier. The sparsely populated hall also served as a constant reminder of how downsized the new E3 really was.

By far, the most popular booth was that of Electronic Arts. A crowd of around a dozen people was ever-present around the single PlayStation 3 running Burnout: Paradise and an Xbox 360 playing Mercenaries 2: World in Flames. Also on hand were Xbox 360 stations for Madden NFL 08, Half-Life 2: The Orange Box, NASCAR 08, Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08, and NBA Live 08. Two top PC offerings--Hellgate: London and Crysis--were also on hand in playable form.

Though it had nearly 100 PS3, PS2, and PSP demos at E3 2006, Sony had under a dozen kiosks playable on the show floor a year later. Most looked polished, though, with Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Heavenly Sword, Ratchet & Clank: Tools of Destruction, and God of War: Chains of Olympus drawing the lion's share of attention. Folklore, NBA 08, and Warhawk were less popular, and the booths for Jeane D'Arc and Buzz! the Mega Quiz were almost always abandoned.

There was almost always a line at the three Wii Fit stations at Nintendo's booth, where various visitors engaged in contortions on the game's footpad peripheral. Three other eagerly anticipated games from the Mario Factory--Brain Age 2, Super Mario Galaxy, and The Legend of Zelda: Phantom Hourglass--were also present, at two stations apiece.

Though the majority of console demos at Barker were on Xbox 360s, Microsoft had the least impressive space of the big three. Five of its ten stations were dedicated to third-party titles--Guitar Hero III, Madden NFL 08, and Tiger Woods PGA Tour 08. Halo 3 was nowhere to be found, with Project Gotham Racing 4 and Viva Pinata Party Animals being the only two first-party 360 games. Despite Microsoft's efforts to stoke interest in its Games for Windows initiative, it only displayed two PC games--Flight Simulator and the Age of Empires III: The Asian Dynasties expansion pack.

Besides EA, several other third-party publishers' booths stood out. Guitar Hero III and Rayman Raving Rabbids 2 squared off across the aisle between Activision and Ubisoft, with the former blaring Guns n' Roses' "Welcome to the Jungle" and the latter offering a Wii party game to Deep Purple's "Smoke on the Water." The lack of a playable Brothers in Arms: Hell's Highway meant that Ubisoft lost the shooter battle to Activision, which drew intense interest due to two Xbox 360 stations for Call of Duty 4: Modern Warfare. On the other side of a divider, Midway's John Woo-inspired Stranglehold elicits chortles of bullet-ballet-inspired glee on the 360.

Other exhibitors at Barker included Bandai Namco, Sierra Entertainment, Sega, THQ, Square Enix, Konami, Eidos Interactive, Warner Bros. Interactive Entertainment, Majesco, 2K Games, Atari, and Sony Online Entertainment. But did the exhibitors feel like they got their money's worth?

"This is pretty weird," said a rep for one company with a booth, speaking under condition of anonymity. "I'm not sure if we'd do it again, if there's an E3 next year." Another was slightly more upbeat, saying the scaled-down format "beats having to fight your way through a crowd of GameStop clerks each day." He also noted that the "lines" at Barker rarely exceeded a dozen people, meaning the wait to play games could be measured in minutes--not hours.

A rep for another exhibitor was less diplomatic. "Are you kidding? This whole thing is a joke. All our interesting stuff is back at the hotel." Another, senior employee at a major third-party publisher was downright scathing when speaking about the ESA. "They blew it. The stuff at the Fairmont was so badly organized--everyone, even the broadcast people had to file out of that same room every time. And the hangar? Ridiculous. There's no point in even having a show floor, if that's all it's going to be."

Is this last opinion shared by the majority of companies who shelled out to show on the Barker Hangar floor? Since virtually no companies would comment on the matter on the record, it's hard to get an accurate picture. Next year's show, if there is one, will be telling.

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